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May1999
The Natural Man
by Ed McClanahan
Bill: Hello everybody, and welcome to the bookclub@ket and our May selection, The Natural Man by Ed McClanahan. And welcome once again to our book club members Cait McClanahan ...

Cait: Hi, Bill.

Bill: Dava West

Dava: Hello

Bill: Jonathan Allison

Jonathan: Hello Bill

Bill: Rochele Riley is not with us this month. Milton Regalman from Danville is joining us for our discussion.

Milton: Hi, Bill.

Cait: I'd be glad to start that off. I'm going to read an excerpt that describes Knobby Stickler's uh extended web of relatives who work in uh in the school system specifically at Burdock County High School quite distinguished folks they are. It says, "Knobby in his turn had installed a whole infestation of Nuckles on the school payroll. His distinguished faculty included Norma Jean's maiden aunt, Ms. Mary Louise Nuckles, an English teacher whose speech was graced by such refinements as between you and I and don't these flowers smell beautifully. And now I want whomever threw that marble to and who or whom profess to be one of Mr. Shakespeare's biggest fans. Also Norma Jean's nephew, Mr. Willis Nuckles Pied who taught civics and American geography."

(everyone laughs)

Cait: Wherein he discoursed learnedly on the state of affairs in Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Massachusetts.

(everyone laughs)

Cait: And Norma Jean's widowed sister Naomi Nuckles Sizemore who supported herself by teaching home economics since Mr. Sizemore abruptly expired of food poisoning after supper one night in 1943. And Marcella Parsons Pied, Willis' wife who ran the school cafeteria, and cousin Roscoe Nuckles the custodian and, of course, Norma Jean Nuckles Stickler herself who had served Dr. Stickler his degree having been conferred by the University of Norma Jean as office secretary although she couldn't type, couldn't take shorthand and usually had two great a mouthful of vienna sausages and saltines to talk intelligently over the telephone.

Bill: I knew we couldn't get to far in the program before we started giggling and uh laughing.

(everyone laughs)

Bill: All of these things are so funny. Who's got another one or let me just ask you Dava why why was that uh one of the passages that you liked so much. That's not like any school system that any of us know anything about.

Dava: Oh (laughing) no I was just going to say isn't that the truth. That's great.

Bill: Who's got another uh selection Milton?

Milton: Yeah, uh one of the love interests is uh Oodles Ockerman and her father is Newton Ockerman and they are both large people. Mr. Newton Ockerman, Jr. proprietor of New Artistic Motion Picture theatre, Oodles father was as ponderous as 300 pounds of vanilla custard on the hoof.

(everyone laughs)

Milton: A sort of fat man who's girth was greatest just below the belt. Like a gravy boat or a soup tureen. And his daughter, Oodles Ockerman, uh packed around more poundage just in double chins than most most girls in Harry's acquaintance could claim in the places that really counted. People had been telling her for years that she was just real pretty in the face with the result that she spend hours every day painting and primping and pruning and preening the relatively small area of her geography that had garnered all that acclaim and mostly left the other 225 to take care of itself.

(everyone laughs)

Milton: So she did find time to douse it in drugstore cologne now and then with a for a rank floral effluvia hung about her wherever she went like a slightly sordid idea.

(everyone laughs)

Bill: A healthy young lady.

Milton: Healthy, yes.

Bill: Cait.

Cait: I'd like to read another character description too. This is Dr. Rexroat who's the proprietor or the uh producer of the world's greatest sex hygiene uh world's greatest sex hygiene attraction that uh he bring to town to just supposedly going to save the New Artistic Theatre from going to ruin after TV comes to town. This is describing when Rexroat and nurse Ratliff show up at the theatre. Uh Harry had just hung up his coat when they heard someone rattling the outer lobby doors. Mr. Ockerman attended and came back beaming accompanied by a wizened old sport wearing an outsize off-white palm beach suit in an advanced state of deterioration. A black beret plopped onto the side of his head like an enormous jelly pancake and its mid-November bear in mind liable to snow any day now. Muddy white perforated wing-tip oxfords also hulking horsefaced woman with oakum hair lowering brow and a cigarette jammed in the corner of her mouth like a vent pipe for the fumes of something smoldering inside her.

(everyone laughs)

Cait: The woman wore dirty pink pedal pushers a magenta sweater, baby blue anklets, red plastic spike heel pumps, a gory smear of lipstick and a yellow fur jacket that looked as if it might have been constructed of the pelts of about 22 old pismires.

(everyone laughs)

Cait: She was a Technicolor extravaganza, her companion a selected short subject in black and white the only color he showed was in his ascot which was a rusty montage of chili spots and his eyes which were as bloodshot as open wounds. (laughs)

Bill: That's great . You have a real picture of him don't you.

Cait: Yeah.

Bill: And and pelts of old Pismire; let me explain was who.

Cait: Claude Craycraft's crabby old cat. (laughs) Hung around the pool hall.

Bill: Who has a surprise in the book?

Cait: Yeah he came to a sad end. (laughs) but its funny.

Jonathan: Well I think that all of these show what a great portraitist McClanahan is. Almost to the point of characitureist and I can almost see uh Ralph Stedman or something do a cartoon of these characters and uh this this this person I want to describe here now is Monk McCorning who is one of the main characters who arrives in Needmore to play basketball and uh I suppose he maybe is "The Natural Man" or one aspect of the natural man explored in the novel. And uh here he is described in all his his his simian splendor uh uh..like King Kong uh what is it this hulk could have thrown a pip-squeak the size of Harry over his shoulder by the tit like King Kong tossing away a banana peel. He was broad assed and barrel chested and his shoulder were a yard across and his head sat atop him like an upside down coal bucket. Broader at the jaw than at the brow. His face was fleshy but very pale except along the stubble shuttled jaw line and his hair was tarry black brush cut on top and greased back on the sides into what almost a decade later Harry was to recognize later as possibly original DA. His forehead was sloped and shallow, the hairline parallel scarcely an inch below by an unbroken black band of bushy eyebrows and so on and so forth so its really marvelous.

Bill: You get your first...

Jonathan: Cartoonlike character.

Bill: Yeah, you get your first glimpse of of Monk. Well there is so many things to talk about today uh one of the things that somebody mentioned uh is that this uh a guy's book. Uh so I'll turn to the ladies on the panel and ask uh what do you think, you are shaking your head no already, Dava?

Dava: I don't think its a guys book. I think it's for anyone who just enjoys partaking of the human comedy because like Cait said earlier we were talking about this. No one is spared in this book its making fun of everybody and making fun of things people do that no one really takes note of. It's just fun. And I'm sorry if some people get offended you know.

(everyone laughs)

Cait: Yeah I was going to say. That would make an assumption that I might be offended by some of the some of the coarseness of the novel but the answer to that is no. I think its funny. (laughs)

Bill: It is funny and about it being a guy's book?

Cait: Uh I disagree.

Bill: It's every person's book then.

Cait: Its' everybody's book. There is some pretty, there are some interesting female characters. I think Ms. Lute is a pretty tough old girl and uh Nurse Ratliff. He learns she learns him a thing or three

Bill: Uh huh.

Cait: As he says.

(everyone laughs)

Bill: Yeah, and the themes that are are throughout; let's just take the title The Natural Man. Where do you think this comes from, Milton, is this something that is sort of pervasive throughout it or are we talking about one of the central characters here?

Milton: Well I think you could argue that its either Monk or Harry who is the kind of the uh the sidekick the pointy headed intellectual with glasses who wants to be a writer uh and you know one way to look at this is its the story of of Harry's development or growing up and you know first you think well he grows up because he gets to know Monk. But Cait has said that there is some interesting female characters, Ms. Lute, the grandmother gives him a pen gives him and says there is a world of writing left in this. This is kind of a throwaway line and uh Nurse Ratliff when he is really sort of demoralized because Oodles has totally neglected him. Uh compares him to her first great love and so its women who really kind of give him what he needs when he needs it.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Cait: Yeah.

Milton: It's not Monk.

Bill: And as far as the heroes in here. Is there a hero? Some people have labeled uh Monk a hero uh is Harry a hero. The two central characters in it, Jonathan, what do you think?

Jonathan: Well that's an interesting question and we often do refer to men character's in novels as heroes uh even when they are not actually doing anything heroic and uh I think that uh Monk is certainly a central character. I mean he is heroic to the local basketball fraternity I mean he is he is the person who saves the Needmore Bulldogs uh from uh from decline and he scores a lot of points on the basketball court. Uh but I think that uh he he's prevented from being a a hero in the novel by virtue of the very comic and and deflating way he's always described. I feel you know. I think that even Harry as as you have been saying uh Harry and Monk are are I mean Harry could be in a position where he learns from Monk but in a sense he always has a has a certain distance from him and comic distance there I think I think uh Monk's a hero if you like but by the same token he's also kind of anti-hero or subhero.

Bill: Uh huh.

Cait: Uh huh.

Bill: Yeah what do you think about that. Others.

Dava: I just think Monk's really there as a bit of flavor to Harry's life. Harry's lived in Needmore and well for a while when he was younger he did live in Dayton and so he has moved to Needmore this town of 6 7/8 or whatever it was the beginning described.

Bill: The bus driver announces, yeah.

Bill: Right, right. And Harry is just bored he is very intellectual he he's a growing boy he's an adolescent and he needs something to occupy his time to think about to laugh at and here comes Monk and Monk is the most accomplished man he's every met.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Dava: I just think he's...

Milton: It may be a mistake to look for a hero here.

You know you have this guy he wants to be a writer and you think this is a portrait of the artist as a young man learning how to write uh then you have Monk who does this heroic thing at the end and and its its I think its an echo of Chief Broom and Cuckoo's Nest who heralds the panel out of the window and he hurls the basketball and its kind of a Kentucky translation of that.

Cait: Ummm.

Milton: And sort of breaks free but its probably wrong to you know to approach this book like you would Joyce or James or something its its more a folktale and its its good fun and and then he themes but uh The Natural Man may be everybody in this even women I don't know Ms. Lute may be a natural man in her toughness.

Cait: Uh huh.

Milton: Uh it at first you say well natural man is the simian Monk. The name Monk McCorney but but that's that's to make it a wrong kind of book.

Bill: Do you agree Cait?

Cait: Yeah I do, I think I do uh he's he's not he's to call him a hero is almost going to far because he he really isn't he's only kind of a half civilized....

Bill: Human being.

Cait: Human being.

(everyone laughs)

Cait: There is this.

Bill: Do you have a section there?

Cait: Yeah,

Bill: That describes that.

Cait: He seemed somehow unformed or newly formed larval embryonic yet at the same time faintly morbid as though he'd spent his days where sunlight never touched him.

(everyone laughs)

Bill: So, an apt description right at the beginning uh really of the novel so probably unlike any of the other uh if he is not a hero certainly uh I don't know of any other characters that I can recall off Milton you you might Jonathan might be able to do that but uh sort of a the fall guy yet the center of the novel hilarious in just about every deed and uh word that that comes out of his mouth so what about the other. You have mentioned some of the minor characters uh there there are certainly some others included the animal that we mentioned a few minutes ago uh I don't know old Pismire is in the in the novel throughout uh what about some of the other characters. I mean they all seem to to play off one another in this small town the Sharpies for example. Anybody has a real favorite as a minor character.

Cait: I like Ramona Hatfield. (laughs)

(everyone laughs)

Bill: Hilarious again just uh.

Jonathan: She's not exactly, she is depicted as a kind of love interest.

Bill: Uh huh.

Cait: Yeah.

Jonathan: Of Harry at one point.

Cait: Half-hearted.

Jonathan: And I love the way it was described there if I could just read it to you. Its I thought initially describing this as an erotic passage but I think its really... (laugh) ...a sub erotic passage. (laugh)

A brassy, boney, toothy, knobby, hat rack of a girl she kissed with her mouth wide open like a snake unhinging its jaws to swallow a frog.

(everyone laughs)

Jonathan: If you are in the mood for being offended you can get offended but I think all of these uh very exorbitant characterizations of people are consistent throughout and I think it you know he he he's having pleasure in characaturing people and uh I think its its uh I think that in a sense its wrong to be moralistic about this kind of thing.

Cait: Well yeah and the narrator who you might expect to be the writer of the novel is making as much fun of himself as he is everybody else.

Jonathan: That's right.

Cait: Everybody else, he's making fun of everybody.

Milton: I think that that's the reason why this was written in first person. Uh from Harry's point of view until just before it was published. And uh McClanahan went through three months before it was due and changed the whole thing into a third person omniscient and so so he can make fun of of Harry as well as Monk as well as everybody. In the way that it would be to sweaty and to personal if if it was from Harry's point of view. It would be to serious. Uh a folktale or a tall tale is always sort of a distant a distant narrator who who can sort of Godlike poke fun at everybody. And and that's what you have here, you have this distance.

Cait: Uh huh.

Jonathan: Yeah. Well you know in once sense the novel is about a journey as you said its a novel about growing up and its about Harry's growing up and and I suppose that the journey he makes finally is to leave. And then finally he comes back. What did you think of the ending when he actually went away and then he got an MA in history and then he came back is that something that uh that you enjoyed?

Cait: I think that's its a reconciliation kind of thing and and and I think it from what Milton adding to what Milton said about him changing the voice.

Milton: Yeah.

Cait: From first person to from third person to first from first person to third person, excuse me. Uh he uh he uh coming back I think it describes Ed McClanahan's experience as well and making the novel flowing out of him finally when he changes his voice and he comes back and.

Jonathan: Well, well do you think is it easier for Ed McClanahan to write he did this and he did that than to say I did this and I did that.

Milton: Sure.

Jonathan: Why, why is that. I mean it makes it less personal I guess it makes it more of a tall story as you are saying more of a folktale.

Milton: Cait said it's its somehow parallel to to McClanahan himself who who left Kentucky as as writers often do and then come back. And on the one hand its its hilarious and and drenched in satire I mean on on basketball, athletic directors and school superintendents who hire their nephews and all of that but buts its a lot more than that. Its when when he comes back particularly uh you begin to see that he uh this is maybe to emotional a word but he really loves this place. He he loves the characters there he loves the town, he loves the stories, uh and so I I'm looking for a sequel of Harry Estep you know twenty years later. Do you think that's possible. Do you think he's going to write another....

Cait: You get the feeling at the end of this that maybe there's a chance of that happening.

Milton: It looks like a setup to me.

Cait: Well

(everybody talking)

Jonathan: So he could.

Dava: The thing I noticed when Harry returns is how he's talking about everything in the town is not nearly as grandiose as he remembered it and the courthouse looks smaller a lot of places are shut down and you get this feeling that all that he remembers about the town is is not the town itself. Its all the experiences that he had in it and that's what made Harry the man he is and that's what he cherishes about Needmore. And so I don't think you you can grant credence to the notion that its the town that he loves its that very place this is just something that's happened in his past and and then he will move on and I don't really get the feeling that there will be a sequel because I think Harry's doing different things now you know. He's not doing the slap stick comedy that he...

Bill: That's really an interesting way to look at it and and as you said earlier Milton you know maybe its unfair to look at it sort of on an intellectual plane. It its to hilarious to do that yet we're we're talking about that and whether or not when Harry came back there was uh uh some sort of closing of of that point in his life and if we if uh I don't know if we did have a sequel would he still be connected to that town in someway if there is even a town. We have all been back to those small towns uh I I would think at some time you've been back to your high school classroom and its certainly not as large as you remember and the hallways aren't quite as wide and and all of those things and I think this is another uh uh theme if you will about how the natural man is really connected to Kentucky. Could this have been written in Georgia and Alabama and South Carolina is there is there a really a Kentucky connectedness to this uh that that you see throughout. Uh or could it have just as well placed in other uh areas of southern literature southern culture if you will Milton what do you think about that?

Milton: Well its a Kentucky book. It's a southern book but it's a Kentucky book particularly because of the the uh the central place of basketball.

(everyone laughs)

Milton: Small town. I I'm not sure that in Georgia basketball holds the the same cache maybe its football, football uh and of course, McClanahan uh is part of that Kentucky Mafia who went west and then came back to the small towns and when he came back he actually didn't go this is actually based on the town he grew up in.

Bill: Uh huh.

Milton: I think that's true but he went up and lived uh in Port Royal near Wendell Berry.

Bill: Uh huh.

Milton: I'm not a Kentucky native. I have been here a long time but so much of this I'm not sure other even southern states would get in quite the same way. Maybe maybe all school board chairmen in southern counties

(everyone laughs)

Milton: Have an infestation of relatives.

Bill: Or they used to be.

Milton: Or they used to be yeah before KERA whatever.

Bill: Uh huh.

Milton: But the basketball it makes it specifically Kentucky.

Cait: Uh huh.

Jonathan: But by the same token the the I agree with that uh but the language McClanahan has a great ear for dialog a great ear for how people talk to each other especially when they are riled. And I think that the vernacular is is you'd say it was southern it you you could say this vernacular it could be in any of the neighboring states I mean.

Milton: Sure.

Cait: Yeah.

Jonathan: And I think I think one one of the great things about this is the dialog the way people talk to each other the extremely colorful terms of phrase they use I mean we are reading descriptions which were mainly the narrator's descriptions but its the same kind of imagination you get on how people talk to each other and equally insulting. (laugh)

Milton: I have got a theory of why this is so memorable and reads so well. One time I was reading it I just all the alliteration you know I I circled and the whole book is filled with circles. Now the oldest poetry in sort of our psyche is uh is Anglo-Saxon that that is is held together not by rhyme but by alliteration or stress line. Beowulf _________ __________. (laugh)

And and without meaning to or being conscious of it McClanahan has done that. Cranky old curmudgeon of a committee chairman you you can't look at a passage and without that.

And not find that.

Cait: Yeah, really.

Milton: For stress alliteration.

Cait: It drives the narrative along.

Bill: It it resonates all the way through.

Bill: Uh huh.

Milton: That's right. It just pulls you along and it its poetry.

Bill: That that's why I think uh uh even disregarding uh as some have uh some of the coarseness as you said early you you have to look at as as I said in the very beginning the quality of the language that he used and and this this wonderful technique. Well let me ask you this about uh uh the purpose at the very end of the book when Harry is back and and he meets uh Monk's son. Why do you think that's is is that just another natural sort of comedic technique or is is it more than that is it deeper than that. Any body got a a a yeah.

Dava: I think that kind of implies you know Monk is still around the town. He came for a while he painted the town. The town was his and he left something something behind.

Cait: He's a bad cat to clean after.

Dava: Yeah.

(everyone laughs)

Bill: Yeah.

Cait: That's a great line. (laugh)

Bill: And what about uh even at the very beginning when we find out that that Monk actually uh when Harry uh uh ultimately finds out is is dead he he passes away. Does that sort of give away uh any any technique that he might use later on or or is that another just really clever way of of introducing you to this character and already knowing his fate but uh but realizing that you can instill joy enjoy him as a character even though you know that he is not going to be around forever. That that was fascinating some people I think might have not liked the idea that they knew that Monk was going to be uh not with the world any longer.

Jonathan: Ummm.

Milton: In that way its a trick ending isn't it.

Bill: Uh huh.

Milton: Suddenly you've got you've got the unknown son there to carry on.

Jonathan: Yeah. And and in this case whereas Harry was in awe of Monk at the beginning in fact I thought he was kind of everybody in his age group was in awe of him and he was larger and heavier and cruder and so on than everybody else. And at the end Harry has come into his own Harry has grown up and he's much bigger than Monk's kid and in a sense it puts the whole thing into perspective. Because the kid maybe is well I guess the kid is quite a bit younger than they were when they were starting out. But uh I think its a moment where it really shows how he has grown up and he got out and he is looking down at the kid it I think it means he's grown up.

Bill: Uh huh.

Cait: Uh huh.

Bill: That's more of that closure maybe.

Jonathan: (inaudible) although as Dava was saying I mean it it does provide the opportunity for for for that kid to grow up and become like his father.

Bill: Uh huh.

Jonathan: And and goodness knows that might be the sequel.

Bill: Yeah that now that.

Jonathan: The Natural Man II you know.

Bill: I'll go for that

(everyone laughs)

Milton: Could we go back to the language just a little bit.

Bill: Yeah.

Milton: Because I think that's really the key. McClanahan is telling us why Harry likes sports writing small town sports writing. He said he loved the assonance the alliteration the sheer mythmaking hyperbole. The splendid _______ of it all, the poetry. And what he finds here uh s is.

Bill: Hey booklovers join us for a live on-line chat with Ed McClanahan. Thursday night June 3 at 8 pm Eastern time. Just point your browser to ket.org and be sure to read on for June's book club at KET with Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson. Remember you can join the club anytime the address is ket.org an affiliate of Kentucky.com.

Milton: Which is exactly right which is why you have to hear it.

Cait: There is not a word wasted really.

Milton: Yeah.

Cait: Its very elegant, Victorian even the language.

Bill: The language, yeah.

Jonathan: But its also very direct isn't it.

Cait: Uh huh.

Bill: Yeah.

Jonathan: But I agree


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